The air force currently operates a fleet of 12 C-130J medium-sized airlifters

The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) hunt for new medium transport aircraft (MTA) is set to gather speed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third consecutive term in office, and US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin has begun exploring the possibility of setting up a manufacturing line in India for its C-130J aircraft as it competes with two other global plane makers – Airbus and Embraer – for the multi-billion-dollar order.

“The MTA competition provides us a significant opportunity to meet IAF’s tactical airlift requirements. We are exploring options for setting up an assembly line for the C-130J in India,” Anthony G Frese, vice president, business development (air mobility and maritime missions), Lockheed Martin, told HT.

IAF currently operates a fleet of 12 C-130J medium-sized airlifters that have been extensively used for a variety of missions, including support to the military’s forward deployments in the Ladakh sector where the dragging border standoff between India and China is now in its fifth year.

The two other players vying for the MTA order, European Airbus Defence and Space with its A-400M aircraft and Brazilian Embraer Defence and Security with its C-390 Millennium, also have presence in the Indian defence market.

Airbus is jointly executing a ₹21,935-crore project with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) to equip the air force with 56 C-295 aircraft to modernise its transport fleet, and Embraer has thus far supplied eight jets to India for VVIP travel and use as airborne early warning and control aircraft.

The C-130J’s performance is proven in IAF service, and the aircraft has an availability rate (measure of airworthiness) of almost 90%, said Frese, who, along with other Lockheed officials this week, met IAF’s leadership including its chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari. “It has an impressive track record of accomplishing missions and that places us in an advantageous position in this competition” Frese said.

The three-cornered contest to equip IAF with 40 to 80 aircraft is in line with the government’s Make in India initiative to boost self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector. IAF is looking for a new transport aircraft in the 18 to 30-tonne cargo-carrying capacity to meet its growing airlift needs.

TASL is one of the Indian companies that Lockheed Martin could partner with to bid for the project for which the air force sought information from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) last year on the aircraft they can offer to meet its requirements, HT has learnt. However, no decision has been taken yet.

The two firms already operate a joint venture in India.

Located in Hyderabad, TATA Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Limited (TLMAL) is the single, global source of empennages (tail assembly) for the C-130J aircraft and the JV has delivered over 220 such assemblies since it began operations in 2010. The empennage assemblies built by TLMAL have been installed on C-130Js produced in Marietta in the US and delivered by Lockheed Martin to its global customers, including IAF.

In February, Embraer and Mahindra signed a memorandum of understanding to bid for the MTA order.

Airbus has not yet announced who it will partner with to compete for the project, though TASL and state-run plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) could be among the likely options, HT has learnt.

India will float a tender for the MTA procurement after the defence acquisition council (DAC) grants its acceptance of necessity (AoN) for the project. DAC is India’s apex military procurement body and headed by defence minister Rajnath Singh. Under India’s defence procurement rules, AoN by the council is the first step towards buying military equipment.

IAF has seen a level of success with the existing fleet and that will continue with the new C-130Js, said Frese. “Apart from the aircraft’s versatility, reliability and low operating costs, there will also be commonality in training, maintenance, spares and logistics support,” he added.

The information sought by IAF from OEMs last year related to scope of technology transfer; possible methods to enhance indigenisation, and to setup a dedicated manufacturing line, including design, integration and manufacturing processes in India; capability to undertake indigenous manufacture of systems, subsystems, components and spares; and making India a regional or global hub for manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of the equipment.

In the request for information for MTA, IAF asked foreign vendors to provide a general estimate of the cost of aircraft and associated equipment for a batch of 40, 60 and 80 aircraft. The C-130J can carry a load of 20 tonne compared to C-390’s 26 ton and A-400M’s 37 tonne.

IAF needs transport aircraft in the 18 to 30-tonne class to carry out a variety of roles, and it should select a plane that best meets its requirements and can be indigenised the most, Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), former director general, Centre for Air Power Studies, earlier said.

(With Agency Inputs)